voyageurs national park

We took this trip in July 2023, but it didn’t get posted until June 2024 (hello baby Claire)

Judging from how many people have never heard of Voyageurs, I’d say it’s one of the lesser known national parks. This park is made up of a series of large lakes at the very top of western Minnesota, right on our (watery) border with Canada. After a lovely Shabbat in Grand Marais, we drove across Minnesota toward International Falls. I was surprised how rural this drive was. There is only one highway crossing the top part of the state, and we hardly saw another car most of the way. We did see millions of loud buzzing insects – many of which ended up smeared across our van.

International Falls is a charming small town on the Canadian border, across the border from Fort Frances. There are very few options for lodging. I made the easy decision to book us two rooms at the Cantilever Distillery, a boutique hotel/whiskey distillery just outside of Voyageurs. This was possibly my favorite stay out of our entire national park challenge so far! Why? In a word, robes. Any hotel that provides complimentary robes obviously takes their guests’ comfort seriously.

We arrived at the Ash River Visitor Center, a preserved log cabin, and spent a delightful hour coloring, selecting postcards, and chatting with a friendly park ranger there. We picnicked outside the visitor center on the water’s edge, hiked the short Beaver Pond overlook right down the road, and then looped past Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center for a park stamp and a viewing of the fantastic The Voyageurs documentary. The fortitude of the Frenchmen featured in this documentary is really inspirational! It’s also a good explanation of where the park got its name.

After a stop at Pine Ridge gift shop for fresh blueberry lemonade, we checked into our rooms at Cantilever and then made our way to Wooden Frog campground to meet Bill from Border Guide, our tour guide for the evening. Bill picked us up in his pontoon boat right at 5pm for a sunset cruise – an expensive but extremely effective way to see the park. We headed out into the vast unknown with Bill, his large pup, a couple from Chicago, and a local Minnesota mother/daughter. The cruise ended up being a great idea. It spanned almost five hours and took us to a bunch of places around the park that are only accessible via the lakes, like Ellsworth Rock Gardens, a myriad of small but noteworthy islands, and the pièce de résistance, Kettle Falls Hotel. Kettle Falls is an ancient hotel deep inside the park that is actually still operational. It’s filled with antique furnishings and almost impossible to get to (just shuttling out and back on a water taxi is nearly $50/person). We briefly considered staying at Kettle Falls just because it sounded challenging, but thankfully we didn’t go through with the idea. We were not impressed with the hotel. Funny story: the berries wandered innocently into the hotel bar while I was taking pictures, unaware that the walls were plastered with scantily clad photographs. I had to hurry the children out of there before they noticed anything!

On another note, Bill informed us that the “Minnesota Wave” is what locals call the constant brush to get bugs out of your face. I have never seen so many flies! Out on the water while we were moving was fine, but any time we stopped at a dock, the flies swarmed us. They were so bad that Greg bought a mosquito net for me at the hotel gift shop, which was worth every penny. One of our favorite parts about the cruise was seeing several massive bald eagle nests high up in the trees. We spotted a few eagles flying over the lake! It was also pretty cool to be in Canadian waters – no passports necessary.

Sunset was absolutely gorgeous! It was a short ride back to our rooms at Cantilever, where we slipped gratefully into our crisp clean sheets.

The next morning we were up early and out at the Thunderbird Lodge to pick up our very own pontoon boat rental from Voyageurs Outfitters. It’s so helpful to have a husband who’s good with boats. We sailed out into Rainy Lake for a day of adventure! First stop: the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, the first visitor center we’ve seen with a dock outside. Inside, the children made Native American bead bracelets while I shopped the park store and Greg perused maps of the lakes. Back on the water, we spent the rest of the day exploring the park. The morning was cool and overcast, with a sharp breeze as we sped along. Lunch was a picnic at the Harry Oveson Fish Camp, a little island featuring scenic views and a rustic museum. After lunch we ended up with a hot and sunny afternoon. We made it all the way out to Anderson Bay, where the berries splashed around and Greg took a swim. On the way back we stopped at Little American Island to see a historic gold mine and a few glacial potholes.

Our day ended with a dinner reservation at the Cantilever Restaurant. We sat on tall stools around a high table, sharing plates of crispy fish and reminiscing about our day on the boat. I gave Rachel and Eva a bath in our giant clawfoot bathtub after dinner, and then Greg & I escaped up to the rooftop sauna for a few minutes by ourselves. It was a lovely end to our day in Voyageurs.

Should we have stayed at the famous Kettle Falls hotel? Certainly not.
Should we have rented a houseboat – a classic Voyageurs experience? No, we wanted to explore different locations in the park instead of staying in one place. We liked the idea of renting a boat for the day better than sleeping in one. But who knows – down the road, we may try it!
Should we have visited in the winter, when we could have gone snowshoeing and seen the northern lights? Perhaps. But this trip fit well with Isle Royale so it seemed the best option.

We started our 21hr journey home on Independence Day, stopping for lunch at the St. Croix River north of Minneapolis, picking up cheese curds in Wisconsin, staying the night in Rockford (just outside Chicago), then winding our way south with a visit to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky and through Tennessee all the way home.


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